What if Nick Saban had never coached the Crimson Tide?
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It would be like the Crimson Tide version of John Lennon's song, "Imagine."
Imagine Nick Saban had not agreed to become the football coach at Alabama in 2007.
Maybe he stayed with the Miami Dolphins, or eventually ended up at another college.
Without him there’s probably no national championships, no statue in front of Bryant-Denny Stadium and certainly no “17 for 17” effort, the houses built by Habitat for Humanity in partnership with the Nick’s Kids Foundation every time Alabama wins a title.
There's also no Rocky Block, dismantling of Notre Dame or the onside kick against Clemson.
But that’s only the beginning.
"I think his going to Alabama has been incredible for college football," ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. "Having Alabama on its 10th year of the dynasty has been outstanding for college football. Maybe not if you’re at Auburn or LSU, or are an SEC fan competing against Alabama, but any time you have a program that’s raising the bar and forcing other coaches and other programs to try and compete with them, I think it’s awesome."
Without Saban leading the Crimson Tide, the entire landscape of college football would be altered, from the rulebook to TV ratings.
Similar to the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, in which Jimmy Stewart's character is shown by an angel what would have happened had he never been born, the repercussions would have been extensive and wide-ranging.
“I believe there would be success, but certainly not at the level we’ve seen,” Tuscaloosa mayor Walter Maddox summarized. “Saban is a once-in-a-generation coach who’s not only been able to sustain success, but sustain excellence in a system that doesn’t promote it.”
It’s more remarkable when considering the things that had to fall into place for former athletic director Mal Moore to hire Saban. They included Dennis Franchione sneaking out of town, Mike Price blowing his opportunity, Tim Tebow opting for Florida over Alabama, Mike Shula losing to Mississippi State and Rich Rodriguez turning down an offer to stay at West Virginia.
What if Miss Terry had never let Moore in the front door before Nick called to say he’d decided not to meet with him? Or Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga had persuaded Saban to stay and fulfill his contract?
“I think it would have been a tremendous letdown if he hadn’t gotten Saban, there’s no question about that,” said Steve Townsend, Moore’s former special assistant and author of the 2014 book Crimson Heart: Let Me Tell You My Story. “As for Plan B, there were some people who probably would have been considered and done a good job, but I don’t think there was any doubt that Saban was his guy.”
The most popular alternate-reality theories center around the Sabans sticking with the NFL for at least another season. Had Miami signed free agent Drew Brees, whom Saban wanted to add only to be overruled by the team’s medical staff due to the quarterback coming off reconstructive shoulder surgery, he might not have been coming off his only losing season as a head coach.
Instead, Saban's departure set off an immense chain reaction that changed football forever.
“It’s widely believed among Louisiana football fans that had the Dolphins signed Brees then Saban would have had a better 2006 season, making him more likely to stay in Miami, Bama hires someone else and of course the Saints might not ever have won the Super Bowl,” said Scott Rabalais, columnist for the Advocate in Baton Rouge.
But that’s well into the ramifications.
First, consider the epicenter, Alabama, and the most important people in all of this, the players. Saban’s first full recruiting class in 2008, which turned the Crimson Tide into instant contenders, doesn’t happen.
Running back Mark Ingram Jr. is the first person you could scratch off the Crimson Tide roster. He came to Alabama because of the relationship his parents had developed with Saban at Michigan State. Ingram lived in Flint, Mich., and wasn’t considered an elite prospect, with some services rating him only a 3-star talent.
If the program’s first Heisman Trophy winner didn’t attend Alabama, one must wonder about the other as well, especially since Derrick Henry also was from out of state. "Without you," Henry said in reference to Saban during his Heisman acceptance speech, "I wouldn't be here."
The Crimson Tide might not have signed any of the other running backs who wore crimson and white for the coach, along with most of the top prospects at every other position.
“I probably wouldn’t have,” said B.J. Scott, Saban’s first consensus 5-star signee with the Crimson Tide.
Although he ended up transferring to South Alabama in 2011 for more playing time, Scott was considered the catalyst for the initial class. He helped influence other players to join him, and the coaches establish a strong foothold in the talent-rich Mobile area.
It paid off immediately with prize additions like wide receiver Julio Jones, who at one point appeared destined for Oklahoma, and safety Mark Barron.
“Once I was committed, I was committed all the way,” Scott said. “I don’t know who else would have.”
Alabama also plucked linebacker Donta’ Hightower out of Lewisburg, Tenn., two-time All-American defensive tackle Terrence Cody from the junior college ranks and linebacker Courtney Upshaw out of Eufaula, Alabama, a part of the state long established as Auburn territory.
Without Saban and running backs coach Burton Burns, who got an offer he couldn’t turn down to leave Clemson, Alabama would have had a much tougher time drawing top players out of Louisiana.
Players like Landon Collins, Eddie Lacy and Cam Robinson might have stayed in the Bayou along with strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran, who was with the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets (now called the Pelicans). Similarly, Alabama probably wouldn’t have hired head trainer Jeff Allen from Central Florida or director of performance nutrition Amy Bragg from Texas A&M.
If Kirby Smart didn’t follow Saban to Alabama and become his defensive coordinator, he wouldn’t be the head coach at Georgia. Jim McElwain wouldn’t have become the head coach at Colorado State or Florida, and Jeremy Pruitt wouldn’t be at Tennessee. There’s no Mario Cristobal at Oregon. The coaches Saban threw a lifeline to, including Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian and Tosh Lupoi, would likely be in very different places.
Flip it around, and consider who could be coaching some of Alabama’s rivals.
Where would Tommy Tuberville be today?
“There might have been a little more success that Auburn might have enjoyed,” speculated Tommy Hicks, former Football Writers Association of America president. “The presence of Saban, what it has become in college football, there’s always going to be a natural comparison.
“That’s not to say Auburn hasn’t done well. It has. Like most programs, though, it’s had its ups and downs, but its biggest issue is that shadow of the No. 1 coach in the country.”
If Alabama hadn't been in Florida's way in 2009, the Gators might have won back-to-back titles and Tebow his second Heisman instead of finishing a distant fifth in the voting. There would have been a strong argument about whether he’s the best player in college football history.
Instead, that was the night Urban Meyer went to the hospital with chest pains, starting his path out of Gainesville. He had lost nearly 40 pounds by doing things like chasing Ambien with beer to fall asleep, and later told HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel he was depressed and mentally "broke.”
“Preparing for the 2009 game is what set him off the deep end,” said Pat Dooley of the Gainesville Sun. “It’s an easy scenario to say that Nick Saban at Alabama led to Urban leaving Florida. It’s probably a factor. Was it everything? No.”
There’s a much stronger correlation with LSU, where Les Miles won the 2007 national championship. But he was eclipsed by Saban, especially after the Crimson Tide won their famous rematch for the 2011 national title.
How many other conference and national titles would the Tigers have won had Saban not gotten in the way of the program he initially took to national prominence? Instead, Miles was forced out during the 2016 season before Alabama notched its sixth straight win in the rivalry.
“Even conservatively, I think LSU at least wins the 2011 title,” Rabalais said. “Assuming Les beats Bama even one more time in that subsequent span, yes, I think he still has more than enough political capital to be LSU's coach.”
Another possible consequence of the 2011 national title game was the demise of the Bowl Championship Series. After an all-SEC matchup, it was abandoned in favor of the College Football Playoff. The BCS had achieved its goal of pairing the consensus No. 1 vs. No. 2 teams, yet even President Barack Obama said after seeing Alabama beat LSU 21-0 that the game was ready for the next step.
“I believe the playoff would have happened regardless,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock said. “It was time to discuss whether to extend the BCS for a fifth four-year cycle, or try something different. We knew fans were hoping to see a new model and we were open to considering innovative options even before Alabama-LSU happened.”
A similar parallel could be drawn on campus.
Enrollment still would have gone up, but possibly not at the same rate. The southern end zone expansion that filled in the last upper-deck gap of Bryant-Denny Stadium probably would have been built, but not as quickly. The school had been considering a new weight room for years, but it took Saban for the 37,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility to become a reality.
As for Tuscaloosa, one can guess how the tornado recovery would have gone without Saban's presence and having won the 2009 national championship. Yet there’s no doubt it sped it up.
“A lot of us were living in the past and thinking about how things used to be,” said Mike Reilly, CEO of Randall-Reilly business publishing, which was headquartered in Tuscaloosa. “He sort of smacked us in the face when he got here and said, ‘It’s time to stop talking about the way things used to be, and make them the way things should be.’ I think he got the attitude of the town back right.”
The list goes on and on, and yes in some ways it does compare to Bedford Falls sans George Bailey (Pottersville). For example, in August 2017 there was a significant spike in the number of babies born in Tuscaloosa. What happened nine months previous? The Iron Bowl.
So one doesn’t need an appearance from Clarence the Angel to know that Alabama wouldn’t have been the same without Saban.
“It’s a totally different world,” said Ken Gaddy, director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum, who used a football analogy to express what it would have been like with nearly any other coach.
“Everyone would have thought 8-4, 9-3 was a great year.”
A version of this story was originally posted on the website SEC Country.
This is the first story a summer series.